Spinning presidential yarns

By Chris Burnett

Greenberg, David. The Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency (2016) New York: W.W. Norton & Company, $18.95, 540 pages.

In The Republic of Spin, historian David Greenberg provides the reader with a comprehensive summary and analysis of the development of public relations techniques used by U.S. presidents since the turn of the 20th century. Today it is impossible to imagine a world where presidents had no one on their White House staffs assigned to deal with the media or go over the Washington press corps’ heads to develop a positive image of the chief executive with the public. However, it was not until the beginning of the 20th century, with the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, that chief executives began to aggressively court, or as we say today, “spin,” the media, with a concerted public relations effort.

Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University, has done an excellent job in writing a series of essays describing the nature of the presidents serving over the past century and how they have used the communications technology of their day. As a historian, he is well equipped to describe events that promoted the professionalism of presidential public relations. The 44 chapters, comprised of essays between 10 and 15 pages long, are written in a journalistic style the author has honed as an editor at Slate and the New Republic, and as a writer for the New York Times, Washington Post, Atlantic and other professional and scholarly publications. The book is especially useful for general readers wanting to know more about presidents and the press. The Republic of Spin is great for an undergraduate politics or journalism class, for the focus on people and events of the day make this book an easy read.

Greenberg’s main theme, developed throughout the book’s 540 pages with numerous examples, is that spin, defined as the “huge arsenal of tools and techniques (elected officials and their aides have used) to shape their messages, their images and our thinking,” has become an integral part of presidential campaigning and governing. Greenberg writes that spin involves the work done by an army of campaign consultants, press secretaries, handlers, speechwriters and other political handlers as well as hacks and flacks to make sure every public utterance coming from the White House or presidential campaign is portrayed in the most favorable light. Whether spin is a good or bad thing seems to be irrelevant to Greenberg. Spin is just there, and it is a key part of the modern presidency.

To support his theme, Greenberg takes the reader on a tour of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st, concluding with a superficial glance at the Obama administration’s spin efforts. He focuses more detail on the development of spin in the first three quarters of the 20th century, through the end of the presidency of Richard Nixon in 1974. In fact, Nixon’s failure to effectively spin the Watergate break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters was arguably the most devastating in the history of the presidency.

Greenberg’s tour is entertaining, and the reader will learn a lot about how public relations’ early pioneers, such as Ivy Ledbetter Lee and Edward Bernays, who played a key role in developing presidential and political public relations. Certain presidents, such as Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, not surprisingly, played a big role in expanding the role of spin in the presidency. Woodrow Wilson, the first president to deliver his State of the Union address in person to Congress, also found success in the world of spin, though his later failure to get the Senate to ratify the treaty that would have brought the nation into the League of Nations marred the end of his presidency. John F. Kennedy was a master of spin through the first live televised news conferences and commanding performance in the first live televised debate in 1960 with Republican candidate Nixon. My favorite chapter of the book discusses the Kennedy campaign’s masterful handling of reporter Theodore White’s chronicling of the 1960 campaign in what would become The Making of the President 1960, which won the Pulitzer Prize and burnished a positive image for the president well before his assassination. By giving White unprecedented access to the Kennedy campaign, and charming his fellow Bostonian, Kennedy showed that special treatment of individual media members could help make for favorable treatment with future journalists and historians. White would go on to chronicle future presidential campaigns in the Making of the President series throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but it was his 1960 book that won the greatest acclaim. In effect, White showed that journalists can be persuaded to spin.

Another advantage of Greenberg’s historical approach comes from his mention (although it is by no means emphasized in the text) that presidents taking advantage of “new media” tend to be viewed as most successful. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) used his love of personal campaigning and celebrity status as war hero in the Spanish-American War to feed the thirst of the expanding print media of newspapers and muckraking magazines for political news. Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945) used the new medium of radio to deliver carefully crafted Fireside Chats and build the image of strong leadership that make him president until nearly the end of World War II. Kennedy (1961-1963) mastered the new medium of television, and Obama (2009-2017) was the first president to use spin to harness the power of the Internet, particularly Facebook, to build a strong positive image in campaigning and fund raising. The book was written before Donald Trump’s triumphant 2016 campaign, so future historians will get to analyze whether Trump’s use of spin with Twitter feeds will continue to help him build a following and allow him bypass a hostile Washington press corps.

Greenberg’s book, however, has its flaws. The historical approach he uses and emphasis on spin causes him to downplay the role historical events can play in presidential success or failure. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) was a successful president because he presided over a nation at a time of great prosperity more than because he mastered spin. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) was a legislative master but a poor television communicator. Yet it would be hard to imagine any president positively spinning the Vietnam War or the race riots of the late 1960s.

The book’s length, and scope, also make it at times appear to be overly stuffed with facts and people that it is hard for the reader to focus on what he considers to be the most significant factors influencing political spin. . Greenberg’s journalistic and historical approach makes the book easy to read, but the lack of focus can also provide the impression of superficiality. The author also focuses too little on more recent administrations. Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, two presidents who were among the more accessible to the media, get brief treatment, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal is the major focus given to Bill Clinton’s two presidential terms. The chapter on Obama emphasizes his campaign success but does not explain how or why his administration was unable to use its talent at spin to make at least a dent in the partisan opposition in Congress.

Despite these flaws, The Republic of Spin is a useful compilation of stories on the role political public relations plays in building successful presidencies. This volume is useful in that so much information on so many presidents is packed into one book. However, readers turning to this book for an analysis of the current relationship between presidency and the media will not find what they want in this otherwise impressive work.